Women in Saudi Arabia

Since the moment I was invited to go to Saudi Arabia I was afraid of how I would be treated there for being a woman. Extremely patriarchal, the Islam foresees different treatments for men and women. In the sect of the religion adopted in Saudi, the Wahhabism, things get even more tense. The good news is that many of the laws that segregate or diminish women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have fallen in recent years, as a result of a country with an increasingly younger population (70% are between 18 and 35 years old!) and more globalized, with access to studies in other countries and, of course, the powerful tool that is internet.

*Esse post foi escrito originalmente em português.

The women (still!) need a legal guardian

Of all the differences between genders in the country, this is the one that bothers me the most. To this day, women need a legal guardian to obtain a passport (i.e. to be able to leave the country) and to get married. The guardian can be the father, the husband, a brother, uncle… Just need to be a man, basically. This rule creates very complicated situations, like a woman I heard about, for example, who married the first “decent” man she met because her conservative father would not allow her to get a passport. Can you imagine such a situation?

But they expect this to change soon. At least the passport issue. They have reasons to believe in this change: In recent years, they have earned the right to open a bank account and open a business without the approval of a legal guardian. Each little achievement is celebrated by these women who, despite being faithful to Islam, are increasingly questioning the patriarchal interpretations that were given to the Qur’an.

As of July, the Saudi women will be able to drive

Another indication that better times are coming is that as of this year Saudi women will be able to drive, finally. It is a change proposed by Prince Mohammed bin Salman whose aim is to increase women’s sense of independence while stimulating the economy. Women driving means more cars sold, more fuel sales, more women working… There are even people saying that it will improve traffic, since there will be fewer drivers on the streets waiting for the women. And, of course, will definitely improve Saudi Arabia’s image among other countries – and potential trading partners. Whatever the reason, they are all very happy with this change.

Women should wear the Abaya, obligatorily

I have spoken a few times here in the blog and in my Instagram about the Abaya, long cloack that women should use in public places to cover arms and legs. What a controversial subject! Before my trip I thought exactly what you are thinking: That the Abaya is a great symbol of oppression of women in the country.

After visiting Saudi Arabia and talking to many women, I changed my opinion. And I realized how cultural differences are difficult to overcome, and how we should be careful not to judge other cultures with the values of our own. I swear to you: 100% of the women I talked to said they would use the Abaya even if it was not mandatory, at least in formal situations or in contact with people from other countries.

For them, the use of the Abaya has to do with their identity and religion. It is part of what they believe. And they hate that this is seen as oppression, they think it’s disrespectfull to their religion and they feel humiliated. Can you imagine being judged and receiving looks anywhere you go just because you are following the laws of Islam? I began to undestand their point of view.

I still think using the Abaya should be optional. And the same goes for the hijab (that covers the hair) and for the burqa (that covers everything and leaves only the eyes to be seen). Today, the Abaya is the only one required by law, but a husband may require his wife to cover herself even more. And from what I’ve seen, it’s quite common. It is still a challenge for me to understand and not judge these rules, but I have to respect and let them talk about the reality in which they live.

There are segregated spaces for women in restaurants, airports and even on the plane

We’re talking about an extremely conservative country here. It is not considered normal for women to have contact with men who are not from their immediate family, and all businesses are adapted to it. Even Starbucks has an entrance for singles and another for families, where men can only come in with their wives.

At the airport, women have a separate queue to pass on the x-ray and metal detector, where all employees are female. At Al-‘Ula airport I even saw a separate boarding room for women, but I didn’t go there and I didn’t feel judged for it. I think they simply give the option to make sure that the most religious women will feel comfortable. Because they do avoid contact with men! All the flights we made within Saudi Arabia had a very annoying exchange of places to ensure that women were not forced to sit on the side of an unknown man. But that was something that came from the women, not from the airline.

Another difference, and that will affect tourists a lot, is that the public areas of the hotel are also segregated. There is usually a men’s gym and a women’s gym. Swimming pool for men, swimming pool for women. And it also happens to exist structure only for men. But this tends to change – the hotel where we stayed in Riyadh (the Movenpick), for example, was building a women’s pool on the rooftop.

There is still a lot of inequality – but this is changing, and fast

Finally, we come to the obvious conclusion: there is still a lot of inequality between men and women in Saudi Arabia. But it is undeniable – and every Saudi woman will agree – that this has been changing over recent years, and fast. Exchange students who stay two or three years out of the country find it a lot different when they return. Women working in stores, starting their business, soon to be driving. It’s amazing! I even heard reports that change is occurring way too fast – and it is still difficult to persuade some women from more conservative families to work side by side with men, for example. It’s a big transformation, and I don’t think it’s easy. Can you imagine you hearing your entire life that it is wrong to interact with men, and suddenly you see yourself in such a situation?

I hope that more and more rules will become optional, more and more women will feel independent, and more laws will be passed – including those to protect women from domestic violence, another major issue there. I will follow these changes closely and truly hope to return to Saudi Arabia in a few years to see an even more optimistic scenario. In sha ‘allah!

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